Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday - Fictional Families for the Holidays

Today's Top Ten Tuesday focus is on Thanksgiving:

November 24: Thanksgiving themed Freebie -- ten books I'm thankful for, authors I'm thankful for, Ten fictional families I'd like to celebrate Thanksgiving with, a personal non-bookish thankful list, etc. etc.

I took the hard one--the top ten fictional families that I would like to spend Thanksgiving with.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, and you can see how others handled the meme here.

This was hard for me because I kept to American and Canadian families since Thanksgiving is a North American holiday, and a lot of the books I read take place in Europe.  Also, most novels are about dysfunctional families, and I really didn't want to do that for my top ten list.

So here goes:

  1. The Wilders of Malone, NY, circa 1860 from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy - hands down, this family knows how to eat well.  Mother is an excellent cook, and all the children will be respectful at the table. Father will say a long prayer before we eat, but that's okay...this one time!
  2. The Ingalls of DeSmet, Dakota Territory, circa 1880, from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie - the blizzard is a couple of years in the past, but everyone still remembers how close the town came to starving.  Pa will bring home some pheasants, Laura and Ma and Carrie will make wonderful, simple food, and Pa will play the fiddle while Mary plays the piano and we all will sing.  There will be both onion and sage dressing.
  3. The Frasers of Frasers Ridge, North Carolina, circa 1760, from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (The Fiery Cross or Drums of Autumn) - Jamie and Clare will put on a great spread, with all the clan families and various dependents feasting on the bounty of the New World.  Ian will bring some Indian friends, and the homemade hootch will flow freely.  There will be dancing and magic and music and stories after dinner.
  4. Doc and the boys from Monterey, CA, circa 1935, from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row - the boys will plan an elaborate dinner, will beg, borrow or steal from the local store, the girls from Flora's establishment will save the day, using money Doc has slipped to Flora to buy ingredients, and everyone will feast on canned goods and good intentions and enjoy themselves immensely.
  5. The Gilberts of Ingleside, PEI, Canada, circa 1900, from L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Ingleside - Gilbert is a hardworking successful doctor, Anne is a wonderful mother and a superb cook, but she doesn't have to lift a finger because Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde are visiting and putting together a Thanksgiving feast, Avonlea style, with toothsome cakes and mouseless custards.
  6. The March family of Concord, MA, circa 1861, from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women - a fictional family list wouldn't be a fictional family list without the Marches.  Everyone is still healthy and optimistic that the war will be over soon.  Marmee won't lay a guilt trip on so everyone can actually eat the wonderful meal that Meg has made while Marmee is out doing charity work.  Jo will cajole her sisters into putting on a play after dinner, Beth will play the piano while we all sing, and Amy will draw sketches of the day and the family at play.
  7. The Spencers of Spencers Mountain, Virginia (aka The Waltons), circa 1932, from Earl Hamner, Jr.'s Spencer's Mountain - we're deep in the depression, but Mama has managed to grow and preserve what the family needs for the winter, and Daddy and the boys have gone fishing.  There is plenty to eat, and afterwards everyone gathers around the radio to listen to FDR address the nation.
  8. The Finch family of Maycomb, GA, circa 1935, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird - Jem's arm is still healing, but Calpurnia produces a wonderful dinner for the family, and Atticus reads aloud after dinner.  Boo Radley leaves a pie on the steps that he has made for the family, and Scout takes him over a plate of food.  He declined to join them for dinner.  Tom Robinson stops by to tell Atticus that he is moving to California, and thanks him for defending him.
  9. The Sawyers of Hannibal, MO, circa 1855, from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - we're talking a good old-fashioned covered dish church supper with loads of pies, cakes, breads, plus turkey and gravy, smoked ham, and fried fish.  Lots of preserves and pickles.  Huck and Tom are there, eating to their hearts content, and everyone is too busy to bother them about minding their manners.
You'll notice that I stopped at nine, stumped to come up with another family that I wanted to be with for Thanksgiving.  Who am I missing?

Best wishes for a happy, safe, stress-free Thanksgiving - I am thankful for books, the time to read them, and the ability to share my thoughts about them with all of you!  I'm especially thankful for you sharing your book recommendations, musings, and thoughts with me.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Kite Runner

I always feel late to the party.  The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was published in 2003 and was on the NYT best seller list for 2 years.  I heard it was great and got a copy and then proceeded to let it sit on my TBR shelf for the next >10 years.  I finally put in on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year, if only to make room for other books.

I loved it.

I know so little about actual life in Afghanistan, and even less about the lives of Afghan refugees in the U.S.  I found it fascinating, compelling, horrific, and universal. Amir's relationship with his father transcends boundaries and cultures and was beautiful to read about.  Likewise, Amir's friendship with Hassan, which has shades of sibling rivalry but also sibling love and loyalty.  Close, long-term relationships are complex, fraught with expectation as well as myriad other emotions that shift in and out of focus over time, and I thought Hosseini wrote so poignantly and elegantly about those relationships with such an authentic voice that this felt more like reading a memoir than a novel.

I also loved reading about the food and customs, work and play (especially kite fighting), dreams and fears of Amir and his family, both as a child in Afghanistan as well as an adult in the Bay Area, as they watch their worlds explode and try to figure out how to keep their souls intact in the new worlds that emerge.

I have Hosseini's next book A Thousand Splendid Suns on my TBR shelf already and am planning to read it next year.  I have to say, I'm liking reading without borders--my life feels richer learning about life beyond my horizon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros - Ghostly

Every Tuesday Diana from Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros wherein bloggers share the first paragraph from a current book.

I haven't done this meme in awhile, but I'm so excited to start Ghostly, a collection of ghost stories collected by Audrey Niffenegger, that I thought I would share the opening paragraph of her contribution to the collection, "Secret Life, With Cats."
I don't know why Ruth left me her house, with all its attendant complications.  Perhaps she sensed that I longed for change, for an adventure.  Perhaps she pitied me. Maybe she knew what I would do with such a gift, though I did not know myself.
How's that for an intriguing beginning? Just knowing that it will be a ghost story involving cats makes the opening all the more delicious to me.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Jewel in the Crown - book 1, The Raj Quartet

In an effort to read more diversely and educate myself about the world beyond the horizon, I have taken up India as place to start.  Last year it was E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.  This year I decided to start Paul Scott's renowned Raj Quartet, and first book in the series is The Jewel in the Crown.

Right off the bat, I noticed a fair number of similarities between A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown.  Passage to India was first published in 1924 and is set in the 1920s; Jewel in the Crown was first published in 1966 and is set during WWII.

They both deal with the alleged rape of an English girl who has befriended an Indian man; in both cases, the alleged rape takes place in a physical setting that comes to symbolize the relationship between India and Britain--the Malabar Caves in the case of Passage to India, and the Bibighar Gardens in The Jewel in the Crown.  As expected, they both deal with race, class, prejudice, and self-worth. The alleged rape victim in both is a somewhat awkward spinster--part of the British ruling class, but outside of it as well.  Finally, both books unfold the story obliquely--time frames and points of view shift, providing the reader with only a fragmented view of the story at any given time.  With both books, the reader is put in the position of synthesizing those fragments to come up with what the true story really is.

All that said, I found The Jewel in the Crown to be the better, more memorable, more compelling story.  Maybe that's because I found the two main characters, Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar, neither of whom really don't come strongly into view into mid-way through the book, to be so interesting.  Hari is truly a man without a country, lost in the cracks of national and cultural and tribal identity.  I found his story heartbreaking in the way that Greek and Shakespearean tragedies are heartbreaking--the arc of his life was inevitable and it seemed that free will was nothing more than a pretty notion in this story.

I also liked the narrative approach Scott utilized.  The narrator seemed to be an investigative reporter seeking to uncover the truth of what happened to Daphne Manners in the Bibighar Gardens many years later.  The premise was interviewing various people who played major as well as relatively minor parts in the story, and included letters, journals, memoirs, and other pieces of "evidence."  I really like this approach and Scott did it without requiring that his narrator have a backstory himself, which gave the novel a documentary feel.

I'm looking forward to reading book 2 in the Raj Quartet, The Day of the Scorpion.  And since the mini-series is apparently about all four books, I will have to wait awhile before watching it.

Final India note--still watching Indian Summers on PBS, though not enthralled with it.  Maybe because I like the story line of Jewel in the Crown so much more and they ended up competing with each other.

And yes, reading Jewel in the Crown counts towards a reading challenge...TBR Pile Challenge.

Hari, Daphne and nasty Ronald Merrick from the mini-series.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came in their mailbox during the last week. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.  Check out what other readers are excited about at Mailbox Monday.

I've been blessed with an influx of new books lately, just in time for cozy reading by the fire this winter.

Here's what just arrived last week...

ghostly: A Collecton of Ghost Stories, introduced and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger (author of the wonderful The Time Traveler's Wife).  This is really a classics collection, with stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Saki, and Niffenegger herself, among others.  I  missed out on the spooky reading season this October with my trip to Italy, but I think spooky reading works all winter, when the days are short, the shadows are long, and the owls roost across from our house.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue, by Piu Marie Eatwell.  I've read a few reviews of this book, and I can't wait to sink my teeth into it.  It's not a novel, but it certainly sounds like it could be!

Walking Jane Austen's London: A Tour Guide for the Modern Traveller, by Louise Allen.  I absolutely love books like this, and use them!  Since my next international trip will most likely be to Great Britain, I plan to use this extensively for our time in London.

Onward and Upward in the Garden, by Katharine S. White - I like books like this.  The kind of book that I can read over the course of a year, a bit at a time, while I wait for spring and the growing season to return.

Here's the Amazon blurb:
In 1925 Harold Ross hired Katharine Sergeant Angell as a manuscript reader for The New Yorker. Within months she became the magazine’s first fiction editor, discovering and championing the work of Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, James Thurber, Marianne Moore, and her husband-to-be, E. B. White, among others. After years of cultivating fiction, White set her sights on a new genre: garden writing. On March 1, 1958, The New Yorker ran a column entitled “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” a critical review of garden catalogs, in which White extolled the writings of “seedmen and nurserymen,” those unsung authors who produced her “favorite reading matter.” Thirteen more columns followed, exploring the history and literature of gardens, flower arranging, herbalists, and developments in gardening. Two years after her death in 1977, E. B. White collected and published the series, with a fond introduction. The result is this sharp-eyed appreciation of the green world of growing things, of the aesthetic pleasures of gardens and garden writing, and of the dreams that gardens inspire.

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields

I missed reading The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, when the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Group read it last year, so it's been on my TBR shelf and went onto the TBR Pile Challenge list for this year.

It was a Pulitzer Prize winner for 1995, and while I did think it a good book (4 out of 5 GoodReads stars in my estimation), I didn't think it was absolutely fabulous...but pretty good and I'm glad I read it.

The Stone Diaries is a first person account of the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who narrates from the day of her birth in 1905 until her death in the 1990s.  While it cannot be argued that Daisy led an exciting life, she did have an interesting perspective--she was motherless, a child of the Canadian prairies, loved and treasured by her guardians.  She had an interesting father, lifelong friends, and a latent zest for life despite her Mrs. Cleaver approach to marriage and motherhood.

I think what Shields really did with this novel is provide a chronicle of the twentieth century in North America.  It's not definitive, but it spans the century and reflects some of the disconnection and dislocation that I think characterized the 20th century due to exploding technology, shrinking borders, and changing social mores.

I think my favorite chapter was Work: 1955-1964, which consists entirely of letters that tell the Daisy's story after the death of her much-older husband and her mid-life career as a garden columnist.  I loved how Daisy reinvented herself at this point in her story.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women

Charles Dickens led a rich and varied life.  Driven by ambition as well as nervous energy, he not only wrote books that illuminated the dark underbelly of London life during the middle nineteenth century but he also threw himself into schemes and projects that were designed to help alleviate the suffering he witnessed as well as survived.

Jenny Hartley's book, Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, focuses on the Urania House and the 12 years that Dickens was intimately involved with it, from 1846 to 1858.  He essentially talked heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was already philanthropically oriented, to spend some of her millions on creating a house to which a handful of "fallen women" (i.e., prostitutes and unwed mothers) could go to for a year in order to learn the skills and manners needed in order to emigrate and start a new life abroad as a servant with an eye on marriage.

I have had this book on my TBR shelf for a number of years and finally put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year.  While I wasn't disappointed, it fell a bit short of the mark for me simply because while there is a fair amount of info about the various women that Coutts and Dickens helped or tried to help--there were some spectacular failures--there is almost no information about how they women who actually did emigrate fared.  So I ended feeling that I only really got half of the story.  But, to be fair, I read the book to learn about Dickens's involvement in the house, and that the book delivered superbly.

My favorite parts were when Hartley wove into the narrative of the history of Urania House the actual novels that Dickens was working on at the time and how the stories of the real women--Dickens took massive notes and wrote many letters to Coutts and others about the particulars of the women's lives--became immortalized in David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and in Dombey and Son.

It's often said that Dickens's women are either saints or sinners, and while I can see why that is said--and I've often made this complaint myself--reading this book helped me to understand why that is so.  He was enthralled with that cliche'd dark underbelly and it shaped the fictional worlds he created.

Here's a passage from the book that describes how Dickens interviewed prospective girls before they were admitted to the House for their year's training.

Dickens was the one doing the interviewing, and as the process evolved its confidentiality appealed to him.  What started as a formal questionnaire with 'printed inquiries' transformed itself under his pen.  No longer a matter of forms to be filled in by 'us,' the Case Book was to be for him alone.  The secret book would bulge with the life stories of the Urania women ghost-written by Dickens.  Their back stories would be his great dividend.  The Urania Case Book is Dickens's ur-text, the book behind his other books.
The Case Book is lost, however.  It's been searched for since Dickens's death in 1870.  Hartley convincingly speculates that he burnt it along with stacks of letters and other personal documents in the bonfire he indulged in shortly after he left his wife, Catherine. In fact it was that split with Catherine that ended his involvement with Urania House, as Coutts sided with Catherine, stopped funding Urania House, and broke contact with Dickens.

I find it psychologically interesting that Dickens's affair with Nelly Ternan, which led to the breakup of his marriage and home, marked the next and final major stage of his life.  He moved from trying to rescue hundreds of women to "rescuing" one, who in the final irony, he seduced and so made a "fallen" woman.  If you're interested in learning about this stage of his life, I recommend Claire Tomalin's excellent book, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes as Nelly Ternan and Dickens in the movie adaptation of The Invisible Woman.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Plainsong - Colorado's own Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf’s first novel, Plainsong, set in a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado, reads like a set of short stories intertwined.  The title comes from a song style in which simple melodies are repeated and played out by different voices, to form a cohesive and satisfying whole.  A better title for this book cannot be imagined.

I particularly liked the stories of two sets of brothers, one set is young (ages 8 and 9), while the second are bachelor brothers described as old and most likely in the their mid-70’s.   The brothers in both sets are remarkably close—theirs are duets, one soprano and one bass.  The younger boys, Ike and Bobby, are the byproducts of a failing marriage—their depressed mother abandons her family and leaves for Denver early in the book, leaving their father, Guthrie, a local high-school teacher, to raise them, retain his integrity as a teacher, and rebuild his life.

Victoria is a pregnant teen, whose single mother throws her out when she discovers her pregnancy.  Victoria turns to one of her teachers, who finds her an unlikely home, but one in which she is treasured and nurtured but which she doesn't fully appreciate right away.

The stories in Plainsong are fairly simple—they’re about taking responsibility, caring for your family and community, living honorably, doing your best in the face of what life deals you. 
It’s easy to see why it was a 1999 National Book Award finalist, and won several other literary awards.

Kent Haruf died in 2014, and it was only with his passing that I discovered this Colorado writer whose writing is strong, simple, and powerful.  I definitely recommend it, especially if you are looking for books set in rural America.  Not glitzy, but full of the drama of life on the plains.

This is the 7th book on my official TBR Challenge Pile list that I've completed for 2015.  Woo Hoo!  I may get this challenge done this year after all.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Travelogue: Italy

Innocents abroad

I had an absolutely wonderful time on a recent two-week vacation in Italy in early October.

First stop, Venice

Room with a view....Venice. Yes, that's laundry drying!

What, no canal picture?  Well, this was the view from our hotel room and I think it captures the homey feel of the Venice we fell in love with.  Venice is a completely unique place--the canals, the gondolas, the palaces, the bridges all make this a water-based city that was fascinating.  But, the calle, the narrow auto-free streets, in which you can get lost while discovering a little restaurant that delivers a memorable meal that blows your socks off, is what I loved about Venice and made it so charming to me.

We purposely didn't plan to do a lot of typical sightseeing in Venice as we just wanted to enjoy the city itself.  So we didn't tour the Doge's Palace or St. Mark's Basillica.  We did walk through St. Mark's Square and walked over the Rialto bridge, but my favorite activities were riding the vaporetto (water bus) up and down the Grand Canal and around the outer perimeter of the city and walking around Dorsodoru and popping into the tiny art galleries and artisan workshops.

We did tour the three synagogues in the Jewish Ghetto, which was about two blocks from our hotel, we walked through the art gallery in Ca' Rezzonica, and we visited the Naval History Museum.  We found La Fenice opera house, which featured prominently in John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels, which I've now listened to three times!

And, we found some lovely little restaurants and my favorite new dish is Sarde in Saor (Sweet and Sour Sardines).

Next up is Florence

When I was in the early stages of planning this trip, Florence wasn't on the list.  Then, I started reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo, and Florence went on the must-visit list, but with only about 36 hours in the city.

That turned out to be okay as Florence turned out to be my least favorite stop on the trip.  It is a beautiful city, and I loved being able to visit the Duomo and I was thrilled to see Michelangelo's David in the Accademia and his Doni Tondo Holy Family in the Uffizi.  However, the tourist crowds were almost overwhelming and I never felt that we ever really were able to get a feel for Florence as other than a tourist town.  I didn't dislike visiting Florence, by any means.  But, I'm not sure I would put it on the must-visit-again list.

Florence from Fiesole

Here is a view of Florence from Fiesole, an Etruscan town in the hills outside of Florence, where we went to dinner.  It was a welcome escape from the tourist crowds and gave us an opportunity to gain some perspective...and have a delicious dinner!

On to Sorrento

We chose Sorrento because of its proximity to Pompeii, which after Venice, was my number 1 destination for this trip.  I also wanted to enjoy a small town on the Mediterranean as opposed to the urban jungle that I've heard is Naples.
Room with a view...Sorrento

The day we traveled from Florence to Sorrento was a long day, involving a high-speed train to Naples and then a transfer to a slow, local train (35 stops) between Naples and Sorrento, which was very crowded and so we stood for 25 of the 35 stops. However, we wanted a feel for how locals live, and taking the local train definitely provided a bit more of that than did the tourist crowds in Florence.

Lemon tree, very pretty
Sorrento was lovely--blue skies, blue seas, lemon trees, sea breeze.  So refreshing and relaxing.  One day was devoted to loafing on the balcony of our hotel room, reading, watching the scooters buzz by, enjoying the teenage soccer team run drills across from the hotel.  We stopped in at the local supermarket and stocked up on goodies for the room, took the city bus, sipped prosecco, and enjoyed life.

A glimpse of the Mediterranean 

Looking north 


First of all, I was totally blown away by how big the town is/was.  We spent over four hours and saw about a quarter to a third of the town.  Many buildings were closed, but we saw most of what we wanted to...the theaters, some villas, some shops, the Forum, some baths.  It was crowded, it rained (for only about 30 minutes), the footing was tricky (made the cobblestones of Venice and Florence seem easy to navigate), but it was wonderful!

Bathhouse art
Storm brewing over Vesuvius

Cave Canem

I was happy to see that the reports of stray dogs hanging out in Pompeii were accurate.  These guys minded their own business and didn't seem scruffy, mangy, or malnourished.

All Roads Lead to Rome

Room with a view...in Rome.
Our final destination was Rome...again, the local train to Naples, and then a high-speed train up to Rome.  We stayed in a hotel on Piazza della Rotonda, with a view of the Pantheon.  Rome, like Venice, is unique--no other place like it on Earth. Almost every time you turn a corner, there is something breathtaking...a monument, a fountain, a church, a ruin, a Madonna painted on the corner of the intersection.

Cats rule.
Our first afternoon we went for a walk to get oriented and about dusk came upon a city block of ruins that was unexpected.  Turns out we stumbled into Largo di Torre Argentina, a square in Rome that hosts four Roman temples, and the remains of Pompey's Theatre, where Julius Caesar was murdered over 2000 years ago.  It is also a cat sanctuary and I counted over 50 cats roaming through the ruins--curiously, we saw quite a few stay cats hanging out in Sorrento.  They all seemed fat and happy.
Largo di Torre Argentina

I loved the fountains of Rome...

 And the ruins...

The adorable...

And the unexpected...

Our last stop, after we spent the morning touring the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, was to take the subway to the Spanish Steps and visit the Keats-Shelley House Museum, which contains the house where John Keats died at age 25 in 1821.

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my senses as though of hemlock I had drunk.

Friday, October 16, 2015

August, September, and October Reading

Between getting ready for my trip to Italy (I just got back after 2 glorious weeks, more on that soon), traveling, and lots of family activities, my book posts have dwindled dramatically.  This is not to say that I haven't been reading, though!  I actually have a host of finished books to report on, and so I decided to get caught up in one fell swoop.

Here's what I've been reading...

Recent releases
The Girl on a Train (audio), by Paula Hawkins - I succumbed to the hype and totally loved this book.  I thought the triple narration worked, and the mystery keep me guessing until near the end.  Can't wait for the movie, though disappointed to hear it is set in the U.S. and not the UK.

The Oregon Trail (audio), by Rinker Buck - Loved, loved, loved this memoir of a 60-something writer and his brother doing a modern crossing of the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon and mule team.  I learned so much about the trail itself, the lives of the pioneers, western history circa 1840-1860, and modern middle America.  I couldn't help but think of it as similar to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but with mules.  Rinker's brother Nick was definitely in the Katz role--larger than life, irreverent, impulsive, but essential.  It was also quite a nostalgic read for me--while Rinker is about 10 years older than me, I have brothers his age, and the parts in which he reminisced about his childhood in the 1950's and 60's made me think of my own family.

Reading Italy
Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes - I thought I had read this book, but in reading it I realized I had actually only seen the movie, which deviates quite a bit from the actual storyline of this memoir.  I enjoyed it and plan to read more of Mayes's books about life in Italy.  Easy to read, interesting, and well-written.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone - I loved this book about the life of Michelangelo Buonarotti and thought it an excellent way to familiarize myself with both Florence and Rome before visiting them this month.  It's well-written and fascinating and definitely a classic of fictionalized historical biography.

The Italians, by John Hooper - Overall a pretty good book that attempts to explain how a country that gave us the Renaissance and Opera also gave us the Mafia.  Until I embarked on my Reading Italy project, I confess that I really didn't know that much about the history of the country itself, apart from the big things like the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and Silvio Berlusconi.  Hooper is an American journalist who has lived in Italy, so it's pretty much all opinion, but interesting and informative nonetheless.

Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, illlustrations by Sara Faneli - Recommended by Lucy Pollard-Gott of The Fictional 100, and definitely an interesting read given my only knowledge of Pinocchio before reading this original story was courtesy of Walt Disney.  Like the Grimm Fairy Tales, the original is darker, more complex, and definitely less cute than Disney's version.  I read that it is actually a satire on 19th century Italian politics, but I'm too ignorant to get what was actually being mocked. I'll have to reread Lucy's chapter on Pinocchio now that I've read the original!

From Pompeii: the Afterlife of a Roman Town, by Ingrid D. Rowland - This turned out to be a bit less interesting that I had hoped.  It was about the discovery of Pompeii in the 18th century and the efforts to excavate it, and some info on various visitors to the site over the past couple of hundred years.  I found it a bit tedious at times, but stuck with it.

Falling in Love, by Donna Leon - I read this on the plane to Venice and loved it.  The latest in Leon's Guido Brunetti mystery series, and all about opera (Tosca again--The Uncle from Rome also was about a production of Tosca).  These mysteries aren't heart-stopping but they are so enjoyable to read--Guido and his family, life in Venice, work within the Venetian and Italian bureaucracies, detailed descriptions of food and meals and markets and life!

Roma, by Steven Saylor - I read this for the two weeks I was touring Italy and finished on the flight back to Denver.  Very much in the style of Michener and Rutherford, Saylor's Roma starts with the earliest settlers along the Tiber and follows a couple of families through time, ending with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the rise of Caesar Augustus.  Saylor isn't quite as good as Michener and Rutherford, but I will definitely read more of Saylor novels set in Ancient Rome.  Overall, fun to read and easy going.

Historical Fiction
Demelza (audio), by Winston Graham - My new favorite series.  Eager to get started on the next book in the Poldark Saga, Jeremy Poldark.  Wonder if it's available on audio yet?

World War I and II
The Monuments Men (audio), by Robert M. Edsel - I loved the movie and happened upon this at the library and decided to listen to it.  So interesting--now, I'm eager to read Edsel's second book about the Monuments Men, Saving Italy, which focuses on the recovery of stolen art in Italy.

The Guns of August (audio), by Barbara W. Tuchman - I have had this on my TBR shelf for so long that I figured the only way to actually get to it would be to listen to it.  Totally blew me away.  Basically a day-by-day, almost minute-by-minute analysis of the first month of WWI.  Tuchman's premise is that the events of August 1914, the decisions, mistakes, and assumptions shaped the rest of the war.  I am really trying to wrap my mind around WWI as a way of understanding the 20th century, and this approach (while incredibly dense) gave me a good foundation for learning about the rest of the war.  Truly a classic and definitely worth reading, but by no means easy reading.  It took me several months to finish this.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym - What a joy to read.  The more I read of Pym the more I like her.  Mildred is an excellent woman and while the kind of life she leads is pretty much dated, the portraits of the people in the Pym world are timeless.

The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy, by Donald R. Hettinga - I read this along with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read-Along group and enjoyed it for the most part.  It did seem aimed at a YA reading level and that made the scholarship seem a bit suspect, but that could be a personal bias on my part.  I found it interesting to read about how these two brothers came to collect and publish the German folktales that even in their late 18th century/early nineteenth century world were starting to fade from everyday life.

Meeting the Challenges...

The Guns of August, Pinocchio, and Excellent Women all count in my Back to the Classics challenge for 2015, bringing me to 8 out of 12 categories done for the year!